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Online Quizzes and the Brain

jmstuart's picture

 Julia Stuart

Biology 103

Webpaper #3



The Variability of Memory


So recently, I’ve become completely addicted to online quizzes about subjects like geography, history, and pop culture. One particular quiz involves naming all of the countries of Africa on the map. For some inscrutable reason, I always remember Malawi and Lesotho, but consistently forget Cape Verde and Angola. This made me wonder: what accounts for this difference? Why do some facts “stick” in our minds better than others? And how much does this vary between individuals?

Obviously, the brain and the nervous system are incredibly complex, and exactly why the brain works the way it is remains one of the greater biological mysteries. However, the basics of the nervous system can be applied to beginning to grasp the concept for memory. Neurons, which are the cells that comprise the nervous system, form a certain pattern in the brain that creates what we consider a memory. The loss of memory is either attributed to a physical deterioration of these specific patters or simply an inability to retrieve this information. (1) Studying the brain, and particularly memory, is incredibly difficult. 

One case study currently going on that should yield interesting new information is the dissection and testing of the brain of  Hnery Molaison. During a risky surgery to correct the seizures Henry was experiencing, he lost the ability to form short term memory. By mapping his brain, both before and after death, scientists hope to learn more about which parts of the brain are involved in creating and retrieving memories. (2) One particularly interesting feature of Molaison’s memory loss was that over time, motor, or muscle memory, was developed, leading scientists to believe there are two different types of memory that act differently within the brain. One is for facts and knowledge; the other, muscle memory tasks like riding a bicycle. 

Drawing upon our class conversations, I think this relates to more than one factor being involved in a single outcome. Just like many genotypes can produce similar phenotypes, the path of memory is very individual and varying. For example, different learning styles, and different rates of retention depending upon the format of the material, are all things that vary for the individual. (3) Without actually finding an answer to my original question, scientifically speaking, I could draw some conclusions about the ways I learn and what memories I can connect easily to other topics. 

In terms of areas for further research, it would be incredibly interesting, and perhaps impossible, to trace the path of one memory through the brain. Signals are transferred through chemical interactions between calcium, nitrogen, and other elements between neurons. However, the number of thoughts occurring simultaneously in the brain would probably make it impossible to trace one specific thought. While the diversity in memory acquisition is extremely present, I wonder how much of a role recall plays in individuals? Can everyone recall about the same amount of learned information? Does this vary with age?

Aging has an interesting effect on memory. Brain cells, like any other body cells, start to follow the laws of matter and dies off during one’s lifespan. That’s why, in old age, both long term and short term memory loss are more obvious. (4) Regular memory loss is not the same thing as Alzheimer's though. Alzheimer’s patients degenerate much more quickly. Instead of forgetting names at a party, people with Alzheimer’s often forget things they’ve known their whole lives, or even major parts of their own past. This leads to the question, how much of a personality is based on life experiences and, therefore, memory?

Through this investigation, I’m still not sure why some countries come easily to me while others continue to be elusive. However, with new methods and cases to investigate, scientists are finding out more and more about memory. Learning about memory also reflects overall learning about the brain, arguably the most complex biological feature of evolution. 


Paul Grobstein's picture

memory and ... stories?

Maybe neither Malawi and Lesotho NOR Cape Verde and Angola are actually THERE in your brain?  Maybe you make them up each time you take a quiz and there's something about the making up process that gives precedence to the former over the latter? 

ray almeida's picture

I have a similar problem. I

I have a similar problem. I see the universe through the prism of Cape Verde and wish Cape Verde had some of Angola's material resources.

My brain cells at age 66 are beginning to go the way of the star dust to which we will all one day return.